A daughter, returning from playing at a neighbour’s: ‘I hate Janice’. ‘Who is Janice?’. ‘My best friend’. Such a childish exchange sets the stage for Claus Guth’s direction of Glyndebourne’s new production of Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito. During the overture, we are subjected to a movie of two young boys playing, representing Tito and Sesto as childhood friends. Their rivalry, extended into adulthood, is the subject of the opera. Vitellia, who wishes to become Empress, enlists Sesto’s complicity in a number of plots to thwart Tito’s intentions to marry first Berenice, then Servilia, Sesto’s sister who is in love with Annio, friend of Sesto. In the end, all is resolved due to Tito’s desire to preserve a historical reputation for clemency.
The production has been beset by casting difficulties. Of the cast advertised in the programme book, only Joélle Harvey as Servilia and Clive Bayley in the minor role of Publio survive. Steve Davislim dropped out at an early stage, to be replaced by Richard Croft as Tito. Kate Lindsey cast as Sesto became pregnant and was replaced by Anna Stéphany, originally cast as Annio. She was replaced by Michèle Losier. On 29 July, when we saw it, Alice Coote, due to play Vitellia, withdrew pleading an injured neck, replaced at virtually no notice by Gioia Crepaldi.
The curtain rose on a two-tiered set designed by Christian Schmidt. Below was a scene of sparse shoulder-high vegetation with steps at the back leading to what appeared to be the mezzanine of an office building. This was baffling. Not wishing to be distracted by trying to figure it out at the time, it was only sometime later that for want of any other explanation, I concluded that the upper floor represented the public face of the characters, while the lower floor represented their private worlds. The chorus, representing the citizens of Rome, make an appearance at the back of the upper stage. Their hand gestures are a direct plagiarism of Peter Sellars’ notorious 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Theodora.
Frankly, I found the whole staging profoundly unsatisfactory. The director had made the fundamental error of interpreting the story, rather than the opera as written by Mozart. The result was that the staging seemed detached and strangely irrelevant to the enjoyment of the whole. It was not helped by the singers being mostly uniformly dressed in drab grey costumes, difficult to distinguish both visually and vocally. Even at the curtain call it was uncertain who was who.
Musically and vocally, the performance was superb. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing on period instruments in period style, was conducted by Robin Ticciati. The singers were supported by a strong two keyboard continuo. One oddity of the performance was long pauses between recitative and aria.
Of the singers, Stéphany as Sesto stood out in a remarkably authoritative performance while the loudest ovation was reserved for late substitute Crepaldi. Although lacking the commanding stage presence demanded by the role of Vitellia, the freedom of her coloratura was impressive.
The evening followed the wettest day of the year. Before the performance, most of the audience had set up their picnics crammed into the terraces surrounding the auditorium. This created a good-humoured collective atmosphere of British fortitude, providing an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. Despite the weather and the staging we enjoyed the evening.
© Peter Schofield
La Clemenza di Titi is at Glyndebourne from 26th July to 26th August 2017.